T.S. Eliot vs. Jewish Humor

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T.S. Eliot is a conservative icon, which is troubling for the conservative movement: Eliot dwelt in a pre-modern world that never existed, a bubble of uncertainty untroubled by doubt. What he read into Dante’s Divine Comedy was the memory of an epoch that never was. In turn he hated Shakespeare because of the unsettled character of Elizabethan England, and in particular Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And he hated the Jews obessively, because he loathed the Jewish sensibility in culture. In a just-published essay at First Things, I try to explain what obsessed this talented but humorless poet.


There recur in the work of ­T. S. Eliot two obsessions that make one cringe: his Jew-­hatred and his contempt for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The first is sometimes excused as a reflection of ambient prejudice, the second as critical crankiness. In fact, these obsessions have a common source. The characteristically Jewish contribution to Western literature is the tragicomedy, which reached one of its peaks in Hamlet. Just as he disliked the Jews in general, Eliot rejected what might be termed the Jewish sensibility in culture..,,,

It is generally assumed that anti-Semites hate Jews not for what Jews actually are, but for what they imagine Jews to be. That was true of Ezra Pound, who imagined that Jews were usurers responsible for social crisis and war. Eliot, by contrast, hated the Jews for what they really are. In particular, he abhorred Jewish irony. Jewish humor has many facets, but its ultimate source is the paradoxical encounter of infinite God and finite man, in which there always lurks an element of the absurd. This is sharpened by the ironic distance inherent in the experience of exile. For two thousand years, the Jewish people have looked askance at the countries they inhabit. But even in their homeland they have understood themselves as spiritual strangers and sojourners in a fallen world. This is an existential dislocation, the knowledge that one is out of joint with a disordered world.


First, a couple of jokes.

Two yeshiva students, Moshe and Yankel, sneak a copy of Nietzsche. There they read: “There is an old legend that king Midas for a long time hunted the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, in the forests, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into the king’s hands, the king asked what was the best thing of all for men, the very finest. The daemon remained silent, motionless and inflexible, until, compelled by the king, he finally broke out into shrill laughter and said these words, “Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this — to die soon.” Moshe says to Yankel, “Nietzsche is right — life is so hard, joy is so short, pain is so long — it’s better not to have been born.” Says Yankel to Moshe, “But who has such luck? Not one in 10,000!”

On the eve of the Day of Atonement, the rabbi is meditating in the synagogue sanctuary: “Oh Lord, what is man that thou takest notice of him? His days are few and hard, he rises up in the morning like the grass, and like the grass he is cut down in the evening. Lord, I am as nothing in thy sight.” The cantor hears and is moved, and prays, “Oh Lord, what is man,” and so forth. The janitor, too is moved, and prays, “Oh Lord, I am as nothing in thy sight.” The cantor nudges the rabbi and says, “Look who thinks he’s nothing in the sight of God!”


There no question that there’s an unseen world — the problem is, how late is it open and how far is it from Midtown?” (Woody Allen).

Four rabbis debated a point of Jewish law, and it was three to one against Rabbi Seligman. Seligman prayed, “God, give these ignoramuses a sign that I am right!” The sky blackened and a celestial voice intoned: “Seligman is right!” The other rabbis shrugged, “So now it’s three to two.”

Sidney Morgenbesser, my old philosophy professor at Columbia, was asked Leibniz’ question: “Why (as Leibniz asked) is there something instead of nothing? He replied, “If there were nothing, you’d still complain.”

This sort of humor is uniquely and characteristically Jewish. Even in existential despair we draw hope from the simple fact of our existence. We can’t be nothing in the sight of God, because the fact that we are in God’s sight proves our worth. God gave us a mind and a voice, and therefore gave us a vote, even against Him (in fact, this joke comes from the Talmud). And nothingness, or non-Being, cannot exist in its own right: It is the revolt of chaos against creation (as Mephistopheles explains in the first scene in Faust’s study in Goethe’s play).

That is the background to tragicomedy, where what is funny also is sad, and the audience doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry or both: I cite four examples, all of them with gigantic influence on Western culture: De Rojas “La Celestina,” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Tirso de Molina’s “The Trickster of Seville” (the original Don Juan story).


I wrote in the First Things essay:

In classical tragedy, nemesis restores the natural balance of things after hubris has disturbed it. In Hamlet, by contrast, the natural order has broken down. It is not Hamlet, but the Danish monarchy, that is rotten. Hamlet’s soul was, as Goethe noted, “an acorn planted in a flower pot.” The power of tragicomedies stems from the portrayal of the existential crises of individuals in a world where order cannot be restored.

Hamlet contains numerous scenes that are both tragic and comic—for example, the murder of ­Polonius and Ophelia’s obscene songs. But the plot as a whole is tragicomic. It opens with soldiers posted on the battlements of Elsinore to watch for an imminent invasion by Fortinbras of Norway and concludes with Fortinbras’s appearance on a proscenium covered with the corpses of Denmark’s royal family. “Who’s in charge here?” the Norwegian asks in so many words. “Everyone’s dead. I guess I am.” ­Shakespeare’s audience would not have known whether to laugh or to cry as they anticipated the death of Elizabeth I and the ascension of James I. The lamentable practice of cutting the Fortinbras scenes out of stage productions to allow the audience to catch their last bus home ruins the play. Fortinbras’s unseen presence is central to the comedy, and his appearance is its punchline.

What we might for lack of a better term call existential humor is a close relative of horror. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the greatest 20th-century Jewish thinker, writing about the Revelation at Mount Sinai (Out of the Whirlwind P. 121), describes “the moment of shock when finite man, upon being confronted with infinity, becomes aware of the ontic void, of the inner contradiction within his existential experience, and suddenly realizes that the very foundation of his existence has collapsed. In other words, man in his rendezvous with God is confronted by non-being, by nihility, since God, addressing Himself through apocalypse, negates any other existence…Man becomes aware of his evanescence and the absurdity of a conditioned and relative existence.”


From this sense of absurdity there arise a sense of horror as well as laughter. Truly great dramatists can capture both moments simultaneously. T. S. Eliot was a highly talented second-rate writer who rankled at Shakespeare’s portrayal of a time out of joint. Eliot wanted all the pieces to fit together securely. To be a conservative doesn’t require living in a fixed and predictable world that never really existed. We cannot resuscitate a traditional society in which nothing changes; we can only draw on the great traditions as guides to the challenges that our generation must confront.


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